I just watched The Boxtrolls. What a great movie it is. It is rare to see a film that is so unrelentingly true to itself — both in terms of style and substance. This is undoubtedly why it did not do that well financially. It’s the kind of film that seems like it ought to be appropriate for small children, but it is actually rather frightening to look at. But that makes sense because it tells a deeply disturbing story about the way that our society works.
The story is set in a place rather like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series — although without the magic, which is fine since many of those novels really don’t have much in the way of magic anyway. There are the humans above ground and the boxtrolls underground. But Archibald Snatcher, the exterminator for the town, really wants to get into the aristocracy. So he makes the town believe that boxtrolls are evil and violent creatures who eat humans. The boxtrolls are actually extremely meek — their only crimes being petty theft to get parts for the amazing devices they build.
Snatcher is a pathetic character. All he wants is what all Americans are taught to want: success. While he is definitely a demagogue for that cause, there is no other way open to him. The film presents the aristocracy as truly the useless rich. They don’t seem to do anything other than enjoy their lives. The four lords of the town choose not to spend the money from a fundraiser on a new children’s hospital, and spend it instead on a giant circle of brie cheese, called the “Briehemoth.” What’s more, the top lord, Portley-Rind, generally ignores his daughter and values his station in life more than her.
The townspeople also come off rather badly. There is, after all, no actual proof that the boxtrolls are anything except annoying petty thieves. The humans are only too willing to have their fears worked up and then to demand vengeance. And then, when they see that they have been manipulated by Snatcher, they immediately turn on him and demand vengeance on him. There are only five humans in the film who are sympathetic:
- Two Children
- Portley-Rind’s daughter is okay in the end. But she too is presented as a spoiled aristocrat. And Eggs is the orphaned boy who was raised by the boxtrolls as their own. He, of course, is the hero of the film.
- Herbert Trubshaw
- He is Eggs’ father, who is forced to give Eggs up to save him from Snatcher.
- Two Henchmen
- Snatcher has three henchmen, but two of them are fundamentally good: Trout and Pickles. The latter spends the whole movie thinking about good versus evil and questioning the rightness of their cause. Before he finally gets on the side of the boxtrolls, he speculates, “Goodness always triumphs over evil… I’m still 60 to 70% certain that’s us.”
In the end, goodness does triumph over evil. The two truly bad guys are vanquished. But more than that, in a subtle bit that is likely missed by most people, class itself seems to be vanquished. The symbol of the aristocracy were these white hats. At the end, we see Portley-Rind watching his “weird little angel” without his hat. We later see the hat in a trash can. One of the boxtrolls finds it, removes the feather from it, and discards the rest. Boxtrolls know value and all that could be salvaged from the aristocracy was a pretty feather. It’s clear enough.
Of course, you don’t need to see any of this. You can just see it as a nice story about a wrongly maligned minority group who are underutilized by the greater society — nothing at all to do with the real world. And to some extent, it is right to think of it in that way. Because it isn’t realistic. As I said: goodness does trimph over evil.